Visual Rhetoric/Status of Visual Rhetoric and Visual Literacy in the Academy

In recent years there has been a shift in the academic field of rhetoric to include not only studies of rhetoric as they pertain to the written and spoken word, but also as they relate to images. However, while most scholars agree on the validity of visual rhetoric and find it deserving of academic study, the attention given visuals’ rhetorical purpose is still very contested in academia; due to its novelty, it has not yet been determined how to study or explain visual rhetoric.

The problems that visual rhetoric has encountered in obtaining a place in higher education have surprisingly little to do with visual rhetoric’s validity as an academic subject. Rather, the main reason that visual rhetoric has faced some difficulty in being accepted widely as a legitimate academic discipline is a fact that not many people know what “visual rhetoric” encompasses. This is not to say that people have no idea what visual rhetoric is - in fact, the opposite is the case. Visual rhetoric lends itself to so many Definitions of Visual Rhetoric that there is quite a bit of confusion concerning where to draw the line between what should be studied as visual rhetoric and what should not be. Indeed, the very scholars who extol the legitimacy of visual rhetoric as a discipline and lobby for its rightful place in academia, often do not share a definition of “visual rhetoric.”

The meaning of both parts of the two-word term “visual rhetoric” is debatable, and this has caused a great deal of confusion as to what actually falls under the umbrella of visual rhetoric. For example, more than twenty scholarly definitions of the word “rhetoric” can be found at the American Rhetoric website. Although a common trend of “persuading/informing” seems to run through most of the definitions of rhetoric, it is easy to see that visual rhetoric is thought of very differently from one person to the next.

The same can be said of the word visual. What types of “visuals” should be studied as worthwhile examples of visual rhetoric? Popular subjects include charts and graphs, internet visuals, paintings, traditional two-dimensional images, television, etc. See Mediums and Manifestations of Visual Rhetoric. Debates over which of these outlets are the most capable of being studied in a scholarly fashion as rhetoric are disputed. From the perspective of many scholars, it seems far-reaching and a bit naive to say that all images are rhetorical and as such deserve to be studied. Yet others claim that all visuals possess rhetoric and deserve attention.

Correspondingly, there is no unanimously agreed upon method by which visual rhetoric should be incorporated into academia. Hypothetically suppose that an agreed-upon definition of visual rhetoric has been established and the problem of what should be studied no longer is an issue. There then arises a dilemma concerning how to relate visual rhetoric studies to society, and how to interpret the power visual rhetoric possesses. In other words, how should visual rhetoric be presented to students in an academic setting? Should visual rhetoric be studied as a totally new and unique form of expression, or does it go hand-in-hand with traditional perspectives about verbal and written rhetoric? There seems to be a division between those scholars who wish to study visual rhetoric through means similar to that of text-based rhetoric, and those who see the two as totally separate, believing that visual rhetoric is independent and deserves its own unique interpretation. In the scholarly debate between these two options, the former seems to have become more of the norm.

Due in part to a lack of faith in images as deserving of scholastic study, visual arguments have in many cases been taught through methods similar to those of textual arguments. Noted art historian Barbara Stafford concerning what she sees as a widespread attitude towards images: “In spite of their quantity and globalized presence, for many educated people pictures have become synonymous with ignorance, illiteracy, and deceit.” (Hill, 3). If one inserted the words "sculptures" or "monuments" (See 3D and 2D Visual Persuasion) in place of the word “pictures” in Stafford’s claim, the result would be the same; in academia, words often bare more intellectual weight than visuals. This reality, combined with the fact that many of the professors teaching visual rhetoric courses are actually trained in traditional writing and rhetoric disciplines as opposed to graphic design or art, has led many academics to align visual rhetoric with written rhetoric. Scholars in many instances have even gone so far as to explain visual rhetoric in terms of the same grammatical rules as are used in written language. This approach is in reality probably not a bad one, and most likely successfully serves the purposes of evaluating visual rhetoric. However, if visual rhetoric is to gain a substantial foothold in academia, more attention needs to be given to how visuals act independently from language.

Overall, the emergence of visual rhetoric classes in upper education is constantly improving as they become more widespread and the dialogue of visual rhetoric becomes more acceptable. At this point in the infancy of academically studied visual rhetoric, the main objective of scholars should be to engage in purposeful discussion about what visual rhetoric is and what it is not, all the while keeping in mind the goal of visual rhetoric’s emergence as a full-fledged academic discipline.

Useful online sites: Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric by Robert N. St. Clair:

Visual Rhetoric: Some Sources:

American Rhetoric:

Useful published books and articles and reviews: Birdsell, David S. and Leo Groarke. “Toward a theory of visual argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (1996): 1-10.

Hill, Charles A. and Marguerite Helmers, eds. Defining Visual Rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Willerton, Russell. “Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions.” Technical Communication 52 (Feb 2005): 92. Review of Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett.